In the days since Natalie Portman announced she would not attend a ceremony in Jerusalem this summer to accept the Genesis Prize, along with US$2 million to dole out to charities of her choosing, the Israeli-born, Oscar-winning actress has faced scrutiny of talmudic proportions.
A publicist initially said Portman “does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel” due to “recent events” that “have been extremely distressing to her.” That led everyone to jump to conclusions: Portman was called out – and alternatively hailed – for feeding the BDS movement. Her announcement was held up as a definitive tipping point, for better or worse, in the Israeli-Palestinian PR battle.
One member of Knesset demanded her Israeli citizenship be revoked. A Diaspora writer came very close to calling her a coward. Many bad Star Wars analogies were made (Portman played Padmé Amidala, a co-founder of the Rebel Alliance, in the prequel trilogy). People wondered why she’d initially signaled her intention to accept the Genesis Prize – was it all a setup designed to cause optimum injury to the Jewish state? And why did she have to raise such a ruckus, of all times, on Yom ha-Atzmaut?
Soon enough, Portman took to social media to better explain her motives. “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing (Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony,” she wrote. “By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.
“Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema and dance.… But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.
“Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power.”
Portman’s decision to stay away from the Genesis Prize ceremony is highly controversial, and there is good reason to fear the fallout from her public dissociation with the Netanyahu government (the Genesis Prize is co-sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel). Her words will undoubtedly be read in some quarters, on the right and the left, as a blanket denunciation of Israel, even though she was careful in her second, more detailed statement to lay out the political boundaries of her protest.
I thought that was particularly brave of her, but also naive. In specifying the limits of her complaint, she stated clearly her unwillingness to be used as a pawn for the anti-Israel camp – of course, she wouldn’t have had to denounce BDS if she hadn’t presented herself as a potential supporter in the first place. A generous reading might suggest Portman realized the import of her decision and tried to dial it back as best she could. She is clearly walking a fine line – for many, impossibly so. But given her noted history of supporting Israel – of being proud to be called an Israeli – perhaps she deserves the benefit of the doubt.